Tantojutsu: Fight with Your Knife! Fight for Your Life!

The Japanese culture is rich in arts and feudal wars. Just like the Medieval times, the Samurai with their Japanese swords and knives tell the stories. In fighting, they have different techniques when dealing with their opponent. One of which is Tantojutsu.

What is Tantojutsu?

The word Tanto means a short sword or knife. Tantojutsu is the art of fighting using a knife. The martial arts Kenjutsu, Ninjutsu, Aikido, and Budo/Bujutsu use Tantojutsu. Yudansha or black belts learn Tantojutsu.

Tanto is another weapon of defense and assassination. The weapon can stab and cut the opponent. Because of its blade, it is best used in close combat. Its size is also a suitable way to surprise the opponent.

The advantage of wielding the Tanto is moving with great speed. Besides that, it also teaches how to control the amount of force put in the blade. The faster the dodge, the faster the strike to the enemy. With the force of the Tanto and the speed of the wielder, it will be easier to strike the opponent’s body.

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Photo Credit: Masa Sakano

To defend against the Tanto, one must familiarize to its use and capability. During training, the students learn how to block and disarm their opponents. They use certain empty hand blocking techniques as the other hand conceals the Tanto. With timing and cooperation, the technique disarms the opponent.

The Tanto wasn’t always used to stab and cut opponents during battle. As a matter of fact, the wielder can throw the Tanto at their enemies. But, this technique will only be effective in the hands of a professional.

When teaching Tantojutsu, students do not wield the Tanto. Instead, they practice with a wood or a rubber Tanto for practice. If the student already becomes proficient, the student will use a real Tanto. It will help them practice their efficiency with the blade.

The Design of a Tanto

The forged Tanto blade has a single or a double edge. Its length is between 15 and 30 cm which is equal to 1 Japanese Shaku. The Tanto used to be a weapon. Although this may be true, over the years it became more ornate.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

The primary design of the Tanto is to stab. The edge of the Tanto is for slashing. A Tanto has two bevels. A shorter, more vertical at the front and a long and straight bevel going to the hilt.

The common style of forging a Tanto is Hira-Zukuri. Its sides have no ridge line and are near flat. In contrast, the Katana is in a Shinogi-Zukuri style where the ridgeline is higher and in normal height.

The Different Tanto Blade Styles

Tanto blades were not made to look the same. After all, there are different blade designs made for the Tanto. Some Tanto blades are common and some are rare. Enlisted down below are a few of the common and rare designs known.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Shinogi

Provided that this type of blade is common to the blade geometry, the Tanto says otherwise. More importantly, Tanto made in this blade design is rare. It is a single edge blade made from broken longer swords. Also, the word Shinogi means the central ridge that runs along the length of the blade. It runs between the edge of bevels and the body of the blade.

The Hira

This is the common blade design for the Tanto that has no Shinogi. What makes it common is that it is simple to make. First, they create the triangular cross section. For the purpose that the edge bevels reach from the back to the edges without any flat points in between. Then the other parts follow.

Kanmuri-Otoshi

Made in the shape of Hira or Shobu style. The design of the blades are long and have a wide groove running halfway up the blade from front to back. The back half of the blade kept unsharpened on the second edge.

Moroha

Tanto blades made in this design are also rare. Not to mention it is a double-edged Tanto blade. The blade’s design has a diamond-shaped cross-section. It tapers off to a long point and contains a Shinogi.

Kubikiri

This type of Tanto blade considers to be one of the rarest of all Tanto designs. However, it is not an ideal weapon in battle as it doesn’t have a sharpened point. Although that may be the case, the word Kubikiri means “head cutter” and this blade is ideal for that.

Yoroi Toshi

This type of blade design has thick cross-sections. It is for armor-piercing and grappling. It was common during the Sengoku period.

The Woman with the Kaiken

Women wielded a version of Tanto called Kaiken. A Kaiken or a dagger can have a single or a double edge. Its length is 20-25 cm or 8-10 inches long. Women use Kaiken for self-defense.

Kaiken is a useful indoor weapon. Only used when the Katana and the Wakizashi are inconvenient. Women would often carry a Kaiken in their Kimono. In fact, they would not only use a Kaiken to defend themselves. Rather, the women would also use it to commit ritual suicide by cutting the veins on their necks.

The female Samurai warriors or Onna-Bugeisha train to protect the family and honor. Furthermore, they use Tantojutsu when they fight in battle. The rule for a married Samurai woman is to carry a Kaiken when she moves in with her husband.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

Wakizashi vs Tanto

The belief in the Bushido is that contained in their swords are the spirit of the warrior. The Samurai carries a pair of swords during the battle, the Katana and the Wakizashi. The Wakizashi replaced Tanto as a secondary weapon.

The term Wakizashi is an abbreviation of Wakizashi no Katana. It means to thrust a sword at one side. The Wakizashi was then used to go with swords of all lengths.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Wakizashi can be a one hand use weapon. The blade’s length is about 2/3 length of a standard katana. Together with the Katana, the set is termed Daisho. The Samurai would wear the Wakizashi at their left side secured with an Uwa-obi or a waist sash.

A disarmed Samurai uses the Wakizashi as a useful sidearm. The Wakizashi is an auxiliary or backup weapon. Ideal for a close quarter fight and to behead the defeated opponent. The Samurai also use the Wakizashi to commit Seppuku, a suicidal ritual.

The Katana and the Wakizashi are sometimes used together in combat. One hand wields the Katana and the other wields the Wakizashi. Others would use other sword combinations such as a Katana and a Tanto, a Tanto and Wakizashi, and so much more.

Although both the Wakizashi and the Tanto are a companion weapon, each has a difference. One of the differences between the Wakizashi and the Tanto is the length of the blades. The efficient stabbing ability of the Tanto can bring down their opponent. The advantage of the Tanto is that its short blade makes it easier to grip in different ways. Either for stabbing and slashing as compared to the Wakizashi.

Jinen Ryu Tantojutsu

On the battlefield when everything is chaos, male and female Samurai use the Tanto as a weapon of last resort. Again, to also perform Seppuku. Mostly, they do it as acceptance of defeat and to avoid captivity. Though Tantojutsu is a well-known martial art, the fighting style and techniques used were somehow lost.

A teacher known as Manaka Sensei founded the Jinen Ryu Tantojutsu. His teacher, Hatsumi Sensei, taught him the combative use of the Tanto. Through Manaka Sensei’s experience and research, he created a curriculum.

It challenged him as he focused on understanding the principles of the weapon. He also needed a syllabus of formal Kata or a stance where he could teach from. Manaka Sensei realized the importance of the body movements instead of focusing on the knife.

When teaching Jinen Ryu Tantojutsu, the most important to focus on is Muto or no sword. Because of the fact that Tantojutsu uses a Tanto, the short knife is impossible to disarm an opponent. That is why assuming the body is unarmed is a better approach. It is similar to that of Kendo.

Jinen Ryu Tantojutsu composes of 3 parts: Kamae, Kihon Gata, and Sabaki Gata. Kamae means stance. It composes of 7 different stances. It also teaches the different ways of gripping the Tanto. Though these affect the physical body in Kamae, it affects the attitude or psychological component as well.

Kihon Gata

The Kihon Gata is the basic form. It consists of the proper way to move, thrust, and cut. When wielding a knife, many tend to do the mistake of focusing and relying on the knife and the power exerted. However, the Kihon Gata teaches the proper response to attacks.

Each Kamae has various different attacks. In training, this is where the essence of Tantojutsu enters. To become familiar with the attacks, the opponent wields a sword. It sounds like an unfair advantage but it will make the student easier to protect themselves from different lengths of swords.

For a sure win against an opponent, the wielder must be decisive of his actions. The student must rely on the movement of his body. Speed and agility become a Tanto wielder’s best friend. This method connects the knife with the student’s footwork.

Since a Tanto can be used with just one hand, the other hand can be used to trap, seize, and control the opponent. In training Kihon Gata, the Tanto wielder gets an unfair advantage with just using a Tanto and the opponent using a sword. This is a way for the students to develop their own techniques to win against their opponent.

Sabaki Gata

If the Kihon Gata teaches the basic forms of Jinen Ryu Tantojutsu, the Sabaki Gata are formed for a skillful performance. Specifically, this is the final level of training. From the previous level of training in different kinds of movement, Sabaki Gata’s more advanced forms focus on application.

Since there are 7 Kamae, each Kamae is assigned with 3 Kata. Each set of Kata emphasizes the different kinds of grips in the Tanto. Thus, the important point to note is the changing of grips in striking and controlling the Tanto from the Kamae.

In training, the opponent uses a sword or a knife. With different lengths of the blade, the range of the attack will change. It will also change the strategies of attacking and defending from either side.

Since Sabaki Gata provides advanced forms, it teaches the other ways to strike and control the opponent. In striking, using the other limbs are an option. Meanwhile, controlling the opponent includes locking, throwing, and otherwise suppressing them. These techniques should be practiced well as it can be an advantage in battle. The Tanto wielder can control the opponent without having to kill him.

Some Kata uses the Tanto and requires to finish off the opponent. Depending on the Tanto wielder, finishing off the opponent is not the goal. They only do it when necessary. Using Tanto in Tantojutsu is not necessary. There is a possibility of using Tantojutsu without the use of a knife. Short or similar items are substitutes for it.

The Tanto and Tantojutsu Today

There are many who collect different Tanto because of their designs. They now design the modern Tanto to fit for its current purpose. Tantojutsu is still being taught worldwide. Some in the military and police training. Others are for personal self-defense. Regardless, the Tanto and Tantojutsu are still present and practice these modern days.

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